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‘Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ has trademark Coen touch

Along with movies opening every week in area theaters, numerous viewing opportunities exist on the various streaming services — Amazon Prime, Hulu and Netflix among them. I recently watched a Netflix special, "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs," and wrote the following review for Spokane Public Radio

It’s difficult to mark the exact moment when the classic Western died. And by classic, I mean the Western films of the 1930s through the early ’50s.

It might have been as early as 1953 with Anthony Mann’s “The Naked Spur,” which features Jimmy Stewart as a morally conflicted bounty hunter. For me, though, it was Arthur Penn’s 1970 film “Little Big Man,” in which Dustin Hoffman plays a character who over time finds himself on both sides of the Indian Wars.

Whatever the date, though, the classic Western, that of Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and many others – including, of course, the iconic heroes played by John Wayne – faded into the sunset long before the Coen Brothers began making movies.

Those brothers, Joel and Ethan, have worked in a number of genres. Their first film, 1984’s “Blood Simple,” was a neo-noir. 1990’s “Miller’s Crossing” was a gangster study. 1996’s “Fargo” was a police procedural. And in 2010, with their adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel “True Grit,” they tackled a Western.

But with that film, as with everything else they’ve co-directed, the Coens gave the Western genre their own trademark tweak, a conceit that often involves dark humor but almost always features something offbeat and unexpected.

Take, for example, their most recent foray into Western storytelling, the six-part, Netflix special titled “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” Having premiered last August at the Venice Film Festival, then opened for a limited theatrical run on Nov. 9, the film began streaming on Netflix a week later – which is how I saw it.

Each of the half-dozen segments tells a different story, featuring casts that include both name actors such as Liam Neeson, James Franco and Tyne Daly and a number of less familiar – but no less talented – actors such as Harry Melling, Bill Heck and Northern Ireland’s Jonjo O’Neill. But though the stories are different, the themes are not, involving the vagaries of chance, the constant specter of death and the pervasive essence of irony.

The title segment represents all of this: Buster Scruggs (played by Tim Blake Nelson) is a singing cowboy, and a wanted man, dressed in white who wanders into town, shoots a couple of men, and charms everyone with his musical talents before being confronted by a younger, faster foe.

Most of the lighthearted tone that the Coens typically meld with trauma is missing from “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” which features Heck (known mostly for his TV work) and Zoe Kazan as two members of a westward-bound wagon train who imagine a life together until fate – and a yapping dog – intervene.

Yet that tone of mildly sardonic humor never completely fades. Along with some mostly unspoken, yet clearly subversive commentary – it returns in the segment “Near Algodones,” in which James Franco plays a dimwitted outlaw, but particularly in the final segment, “The Mortal Remains,” in which five characters contemplate the very meaning of death.

Well-acted, sumptuously produced yet always challenging – especially to viewers sensitive to overt images of violence – “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is classic Coen, if not classic Western.